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Black teen barred from skating rink by inaccurate facial recognition

Black teen barred from skating rink by inaccurate facial recognition


‘To me, it’s basically racial profiling,’ the teen’s mother said

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Illustration of several faces, with one highlighted.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A facial recognition algorithm used by a local roller skating rink in Detroit wouldn’t let teen Lamya Robinson onto the premises, and accused her of previously getting into a fight at the establishment.

But Robinson had never even been to the rink.

The facial recognition system had incorrectly matched her to another patron, she told Fox 2 Detroit. The rink removed her from the building and put her outside alone, her family says.

“To me, it’s basically racial profiling,” Juliea Robinson, her mother, told the TV station. “You’re just saying every young Black, brown girl with glasses fits the profile and that’s not right.”

The harms of facial recognition systems deployed in businesses and by police have been slowly coming to light as the technology is more widely used. Research into these algorithms has shown that they are far less accurate when distinguishing between the faces of Black people, women, and children, which might help explain the error faced by Lamya Robinson.

The highest-profile case of facial recognition leading to a wrongful arrest was also in Detroit, in the case of Robert Williams. Williams was arrested and detained for 30 hours in January 2020, after being accused of shoplifting from a Shinola watch store. He testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee, urging for legislators to adopt a moratorium on the technology introduced as legislation in June 2020.

“I don’t want anyone to walk away from my testimony thinking that if only the technology was made more accurate, its problems would be solved,” Williams said in his testimony. “Even if this technology does become accurate at the expense of people like me, I don’t want my daughters’ faces to be part of some government database.”

The disparity in racial and gender accuracy, as well as the invasive nature of the technology, has led to civil rights organizations and politicians calling for bans. The American Civil Liberties Union has called for nationwide bans and is suing the Detroit Police Department on behalf of Williams for its misuse of the technology. Some states like Maine have already begun to limit police use of the technology. However, only Portland, Oregon, currently has laws limiting how private businesses can use facial recognition.

Civil rights nonprofit Fight for the Future announced that more than 35 other organizations had joined it in demanding that retailers stop using facial recognition in their stores. The group reiterated its position today after the report of Lamya Robinson’s experience getting kicked out of the skating rink.

“This is exactly why we think facial recognition should be banned in public places,” wrote Fight for the Future’s director of campaign and operations Caitlin Seeley George in a press release. “It’s also not hard to imagine what could have happened if police were called to the scene and how they might have acted on this false information.”